Redshirt Remembrance Day 2013 – On Killing Carny

Redshirts: Well gentlemen, you're all going to die.The fact is, as writers, we often deal in death. We bring into being characters whose whole purpose for being is to die. Sometimes a random extra wanders onto the page that needs culling for effect. Sometimes death is happening and you need fodder for the cannons so you implement a platoon of redshirts to bolster your numbers. And sometimes, from among those ranks of the doomed to died, you come to love a character. You know from their beginning you’re going to have to kill them, but they weasel their way into your heart. That’s okay. In fact, that’s great! If you love the character then odds are your readers will too. That makes it all the better when that character dies because your readers will be emotionally invested.

Today, in memory of all those characters destined for death, I want to send out a short tribute. December 1st has been appointed Redshirt Remembrance Day by Western Australian writer, Hadiyah Stephens. She invites us to take a moment to remember a character we’ve loved and murdered for the sake of a compelling story.

“For those of you don’t recognise that ‘red-shirt’ reference, it’s a Star Trek one. If you see a random, nameless red shirt in Star Trek… he will die. It’s inevitable, it nearly always happens. So in dedication of all the red-shirts in our stories, ‘We miss you, but you die for the better good of our word counts and stories.’” ~ Hadiyah Stephens

In the first of my Red-shirt Remembrances I give these words in honour, respect, and thanks to a character in my book, The Flight of Torque. Unlike those nameless redshirts, this character has a name. He was however a relatively minor character in the book. From the moment of his creation he was always intended to be fodder for my protagonist. The moment of his birth he was destined to die in a gruesome and brutal way that would torture and torment my heroine. His reason for living was in the manner of his dying.

And you know what? I didn’t love him in the beginning. He’s a “bad guy” and there’s a lot about him not to love. He was vengeful, vacuous, violent, vagrant, and vapid. He was other derogatory words that don’t start with the letter ‘v’ too. But as I wrote him into the story I explored him. I discovered his voice and had fun with it. I watched the beauty of his movements. I followed the wonky way of his thoughts. I began to know his quirks. Over time I came to like him. I was no longer sure I wanted to send this character into the cold, dark night of eternal slumber.

Still, the story called for his demise. In true writerly fashion I drew it out in all its glorious wonder. I used the relationship I’d formed with him to make it meaningful and to make sure it hit a raw nerve with my protagonist. His death pushed the story onward and upward. It served the story and that is what a good death always does.

So, to Carny, may you live the lives that never see the page and be in death a tribute to your story.

I Killed My Hero. OMG! You Did What?!

Reader Question: “Is there a way to kill off the main character early or in the middle of a story? If so, does that kill the story or can it still work?”

Killing The Hero

There are a few instances where killing off the main character at any point in the story can work, but, generally, the Hero shouldn’t die. At The Hero’s Journey Seminar, Karel Seger’s covered this with very good reasoning. He explained that when the Hero dies the viewer is confused because he or she is no longer tied to the character. When death happens to other characters we feel the emotions through the Hero but if you do funky stuff to the Hero you create a detachment that brings the reader/viewer out of the story. I add however, that while it is rare for the death of the Hero to play well in a story it can be done, if it is done well.

Life After Death

For example, if the main character continues through the story after he is dead then it can work. Paranormal stories are becoming more common. Modern readers are open to the idea that there may be an afterlife or life after death. So, a character may die and return to the story as a ghost or other ethereal being. I can think of at least one fantastic example where the character was dead all along and you didn’t know it until the end of the movie. The body may physically die and then be magically or metaphysically reanimated, such as with vampires and zombies. I remember one such biblical death that has been remembered evangelically for centuries. An immortal might experience “death” several times and survive those experiences.

But, life after death isn’t necessary paranormal either. A Hero could experience what has come to be called a “near death experience”. The body may physically die, it may even be pronounced dead, and then spontaneously revive. The science-fictional aspect of cryogenics and other stasis are states where the body would be declared clinically dead. There is no longer a measurable heartbeat or brainwave. The body’s metabolism is slowed down to such a deep “sleep” state that it no longer dreams. Yet, from this “death” the character can revive, exactly as they were before or, as poor Han Solo could attest, with one hell of a hangover.

What is significant about these deaths is that the death experience itself is profound for the character. Experiencing death, and then living in some way beyond that experience leaves a mark on the character. They often experience fundamental change. In a way, they do die because after that experience it is impossible to be exactly who they were before. If you write a scene where the main character dies it needs to have that profundity.

Another aspect of life after death that is becoming more commonly accepted as possible is the survival of the soul after the body dies. In some religions, the soul resides in the heavens after death, but in others the soul is reborn into the world of the living. In this way a character could live again after dying. It could be interesting telling a story from the point-of-view of the eternal soul. What if your character remembers living a former life?

Death, And Then Dying

Sometimes a story can open on a death scene and then flash back. It’s not a popular method because, lets face it, how much is a reader going to be willing to invest in a story if she knows that the character is going to die at the end? But flashbacks can work, especially if the opening scene leaves the death uncertain. If the character is dying when the scene flashes back then your reader is given a strong hook to find out if the character is going to live or die. Again, however, the experience must be a profound one and if that character does ultimately die at the end then you should definitely remember the points I make next.

A Heroic Death

One movie I remember did it brilliantly. The character development through the movie was profound and in the final few minutes the main character makes a heroic choice. One life, for many, but the real choice he made was his life, for his daughter’s. And that’s where it was a real and just choice and where his death made him truly a hero. It did work. But I also remember leaving the cinema at the end out of that movie feeling betrayed and heartbroken. We’re used to great stories having the traditional “happy ending”. The good guys win and go home and live to fight another day. And, technically they did, the good guys did win, but at a terrible price.

I think if most stories did this we’d go into movies with fewer expectations about how things should unfold. This movie is proof that it can be done, and done well. But while a moment like this is memorable, is it truly being fair to your reader/viewer? When we give ourselves into the hands of the writer there is a bond of trust. We open ourselves up to care about these characters. Death is a part of life, it is painful, and killing of that main character can abruptly rip us away from the story. Grief creates disconnection. And we grieve for a well written character who dies. When it’s the main character, it’s almost like we die ourselves because we’ve been seeing the world through that characters eyes. It’s their life we’ve lived while reading the story. It’s very hard to remain invested in a story when our heart has been ripped out.

Not Always A Hero

Sometimes you have to be aware that the Hero may not be who you think he is. If you kill off a character early and the story continues with someone else then that initial character was not the Hero. Beware of this trap because it’s a dangerous one. You can invest a lot of time writing the story in the point of view of one character and making such a dramatic shift to another disjoints the story. If you’ve got this happening in a draft, seriously consider if you could tell the story from the second character’s point of view from the very beginning. Examine your reasoning, why does this shift take place and is it fully justified?

My Advice On Killing The Hero

Make your Hero's death memorable.If you must do it, if the story needs to have this character die, do it well. Make the death memorable and completely justifiable. Never kill a main character carelessly. Don’t have him hit by a bus. Senseless death is waste and a reader needs to feel a sense of purpose behind such a great loss. Fiction, unlike life, has to have meaning. Every action has a motive and a purpose. Even the death of your character, any character at all, needs to mean something. But if that death is of your main character, your Hero, it must be vital, and life-altering. Weigh the loss the reader feels, the grief, and the sense of disconnection with what character’s death gives back to the reader and make sure there is a fair trade there. Sometimes the Hero does have to die, and when he does, he should be remembered for the remarkable contribution he made to through his life.

Which stories, books, or movies do you know of that killed off the main character? How did you feel when it happened?

Do you have a question about writing fiction? Ask me via email, Facebook, Twitter, or Plurk.

Finding The Right Words for Tragic Topics

Death is solemn, it's serious...I may be overly sensitive to “hard topics”. I remember getting scolded by my high school newspaper advisor for using the headline “Death of a Writer”, when a bestselling author died. “You always use the person’s name, his age, and the verb ‘dies.’ That’s it. Don’t be clever. Someone died, it’s solemn and serious.”

Got that? As a timid tenth grader looking to absorb every bit of news writing knowledge I could, I sure did.

Most writers face a circumstance where they have to write a difficult piece. Whether it’s coverage of a national or international disaster, an obituary for a loved one, or a local tragedy for your hometown paper, these assignments are never easy. But they are only as hard as we decide they have to be.

I recently covered a fire that ravaged one of the elementary schools where my husband works, burning the school to the ground. This made me think about the editorial I wrote for a school music education publication shortly after 9-11. The obituaries I’ve written. My story featuring the Columbine High School band director after the shooting.

How did I handle all of these? I don’t think the stories were particularly challenging, but they required tact and grace and, perhaps even more so than other topics, the right words. What else should you keep in mind when you write about tragic topics?

Reach for the heart with storytelling and details. Facts are fine, but tragic stories give us rich opportunities to really reach our readers’ hearts. If you can find the perfect anecdote, share it. Don’t be afraid to get personal, as long as you do so with tact, grace and sensitivity.

Use humor tactfully. One anecdote from the weeks following September 11, 2001, stands out in my mind. I went to the local Starbucks with my editorial assistant a few days after the towers fell, and we got in line behind a woman who was complaining loudly that she wanted a refund. She was giving the barrista a hard time and — being regulars there — our hearts went out to him. Her problem? Her latte didn’t have enough foam. For those who know coffee, cappuccino has plentiful foam. A latte does not. The story struck me and my friend as so funny, I used it as the basis for my editorial, to segue into talking about what is really important in life.

Get the facts right. People are hypersensitive in times of tragedy (just think about latte lady). They will notice if you write a beautiful story but get a fact or two wrong. Additionally, rumors and misinformation fly during disasters. Check to make sure names are spelled correctly and take nothing for granted. Fact check everything.

Make sure you have something to say. After the hurricanes in Haiti, a lot of bloggers capitalized on the popularity of the keyword with articles that loosely tied into the hurricanes. If you have something significant and unique to say about a global or local tragedy, write about it. But don’t look for a tie-in just to capitalize on keyword searches. It’s the cyber-equivalent of going to a funeral to pick up girls.

South Bay Elementary School Fire. Photograph by T.J. AllcotUse the opportunity to do good. When I covered the fire at South Bay Elementary School for Long Island Exchange, I wanted to spotlight local businesses who were helping. I also wanted to do what I could myself by spreading the word but, as the business and technology columnist, I had to find the right angle. Long Island Exchange is a locally-targeted website, and the fire has been big news for more than a week here on Long Island. I wanted to make sure the story had relevance for my readers and I felt it was important to include a call to action. The school is collecting donations of books, school supplies and, most importantly, cash or gift cards, to help their re-building efforts and to continue teaching in the interim. That was the point I wanted to make.

All the “hard” stories I’ve written have had a specific purpose — a statement that aimed to change people’s perspectives or to help them in a similar situation. When I wrote about September 11, I wanted people to slow down and appreciate what they had (even if all they had was a latte with no foam). When I wrote about Columbine, I did so with the clear intention of showing music teachers their role in helping students get through difficult times. When I write obituaries, I aim to evoke good memories about the deceased.

Knowing why you’re covering a topic is the key. When your intentions are pure, your passion and sincerity shows. As the Bible notes, our words can move mountains. Use them –and choose them — with care.

I’ll leave you with two quotes that are good to remember when you tackle tough topics.

“Whatever words we utter
should be chosen with care
for people will hear them
and be influenced by them
for good or ill.” – Buddha

“Out of the abundance
of the heart
the mouth speaks.”
– Jesus Christ

South Bay Elementary School fire photograph by T.J. Allcot
Visiting Grave photograph by Marcus Lindström